Historical Laws affecting Gypsies and Travellers

Publication type: Guide

Author: Friends, Families and Travellers

Themes: Criminal Justice, Discrimination, Health and Social Care

A Brief Historical Overview

The historical relationship between Gypsies and Travellers and the state in England, dates back to 1530 with the passing of the Egyptians Act. This law was aimed at ridding the country of all Egyptians or Gypsies, by banning immigration and ‘voluntarily’ requiring Gypsies to leave the country within sixteen days. The punishment for those who did not conform was the confiscation of goods and property, imprisonment and deportation (Mayall 1995). This law was further amended in 1554, when if Gypsies abandoned their ‘naughty, idle and ungodly life and company’ and adopted a sedentary way of life with a settled occupation, they would not be punished, however the punishment was extended to include execution for those not complying.

Many Gypsies were in fact executed by the state up until the 1660’s, and although the state executions stopped in the latter half of the seventeenth century, the punitive and restrictive laws continued. It appears that Gypsies were tolerated when they were useful as farm labour, entertainers or blacksmiths, and were made to move on when no longer useful. Gypsies survived thus on the margins of society until the outbreak of World War II.

The outbreak of war and subsequent conscription, meant that Gypsies became a useful source of labour for the war effort. The darker side of those war years is that along with Jewish people, gay people, trade unionists and disabled people, Gypsies were also victims of the Nazi regime.

The early post war years brought about a new tolerance for a while, there was plenty of work around in reconstruction and indeed many people were living in caravans or prefabs. However, this tolerance was short lived as land became more and more scarce. The scarcity of land brought about much tighter immigration laws, despite the fact that the United Kingdom signed the Convention on Stateless Persons (1954) which states: ‘The contracting states shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of stateless persons’. In practice the Home Office ignores this convention.

Many Gypsies and Travellers are in fact urban dwellers, despite the romantic image of brightly painted wagons in woodland clearings. Although many do live in the countryside, most Gypsies and Travellers surround the cities and large towns as they are dependent upon the dominant culture for trade and provisions. This migration to the city started around the time of the industrial revolution. As mentioned above, scarcity of land around urban areas led to tighter controls about where Gypsies and Travellers could locate their caravans.

The Caravan Sites Act of 1960 was a piece of legislation aimed at controlling private caravan sites. The new law made it difficult for Gypsies and Travellers to buy and winter on small plots of land, unless they had a licence that could only be gained through planning permission. Even those staying on the private land of farmers they were working for, could no longer do so. The effect of this was to push even more Gypsies and Travellers on to the roadside.

In 1965 a national survey of Gypsies and Travellers took place. The following report published two years later, was called ‘Gypsies and Other Travellers’. The findings showed that 60% of the families had travelled in the previous year, mainly as a result of harassment from police and council officials. Few children received regular schooling and only 33% of the families had access to a water supply. It was found that there were too few local authority sites. (Kenrick and Bakewell 1995)

The following year brought about the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, which included the following provisions:

  • County Councils and London Boroughs were given the duty to provide accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers residing and resorting to their areas.
  • The Secretary of State for the Environment was able to give directions to any local authority requiring them to provide sites. These directions are enforceable by mandamus. (Section 9)
  • An area would be able to bedesignated as an area in which Gypsies and Travellers could not station their caravans except if there are pitches free on the official site It became a criminal offence to do so. (Sections 10 and 11). (Quoted from Kenrick and Bakewell 1995:38)

The reality of this legislation is that the minimum number of pitches and sites have been provided and therefore any of those unable to find a pitch were hounded out of the area. Families are often afraid to leave the site, knowing that when they return a pitch will probably no longer be available. The social structure of Gypsy and Traveller families has been affected, as many are unable to travel they are failing to keep up the social networks that have become part of their culture. Further to this, visiting friends and relatives have nowhere to pitch their vehicles for the duration of their stay. Bureaucratic procedures make it difficult to apply for a licence.

Once on a site, licensees have to abide by rules and conditions incompatible with their culture, for example they may not keep animals, light bonfires or trade on the premises. Many Gypsies and Traveller have traditionally worked along side their residing place, for example scrap metal is often collected for trade. If there is no provision for storage, which there usually is not, families have to abandon what is often their main source of income.

Gypsies and Travellers have been the object of prejudice and discrimination for hundreds of years and the lengthy history of legislation against them is a testament of this. However, perhaps the worst blow came about following the influx of New Travellers onto the road, particularly from the mid 80’s onwards, which provoked the then Conservative Government into passing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Part Five of the Act greatly increased the powers of police and local authorities to evict Gypsies and Travellers camping illegally and removed the duty on local authorities, under the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, to provide sites.

Despite opposition from all other parties and the House of Lords, the bill went ahead anyway. It included the following proposals:

  • The repeal of Part II of the 1968 Act, removing the duty on local authorities to provide sites, and abolishing the government grant for constructing gypsy caravan sites.
  • An extended power for local authorities to direct unauthorised campers to leave land, including any land forming part of a highway, any other unoccupied land, or any land occupied without the owner’s consent. It would become a criminal offence for anyone so directed to refuse to leave, or to return to it within three months.
  • An extended power to Magistrate’s Courts to make orders authorising local authorities to enter land and remove vehicles and property, if persons are present in contravention of a direction to leave
  • A strengthening of the powers contained in the Public Order Act 1986 (Section 39), giving the police power to direct trespassers to leave if they have damaged the land itself (as distinct from property on it), or if they have six vehicles. It also extends the application of this section to common land, highway verges, byways, green lanes and other minor highways, and includes new police powers to remove vehicles. (Quoted from Hawes and Perez 1995:121)

The implications for Gypsies are perhaps obvious. The repeal of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, not only means that councils no longer need to build sites, but that they can close down existing sites.

The Government’s response to critics of the 1994 Act was that Gypsies and Travellers should buy their own land and set up sites. However, the reality is that the current planning system makes this virtually impossible.

Although nomadism and unauthorised camping are not, in themselves, illegal, the effect of the legislation has been to criminalise a way of life. In addition to this, the systematic closure of traditional stopping places through ditching, gating and boulders has resulted in Gypsies and Travellers having nowhere legal to stop. This has devastating consequences, especially for families with young children.

Challenges to the Law

In 1995, FFT, working with the Public Law Project, secured an important judgment which has meant that local authorities have to take account of Gypsies and Travellers circumstances before evicting. This judgment came about as a result of R-v-Wealden Dist. Council ex parte Wales, in which Justice Sedley stated these were

‘considerations of common humanity, none of which can properly be ignored when dealing with one of the most fundamental human needs, the need for shelter with at least a modicum of security.’

As a result of repeated legal challenges brought by the Gypsy and Traveller communities, the Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions launched a ‘Good Practice Guide on Managing Unauthorised Camping’ in September 1998 for local authorities and the police. Although there has been no change to legislation, the guide is a recognition by the authorities that a different approach to Gypsy and Traveller accommodation is necessary and holds considerable weight in legal challenges.

In 2004 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (DCLG) and the Home Office jointly launched the ‘Guidance on Managing Unauthorised Encampments‘. It provides guidance to local authorities, the police and others on managing unauthorised encampments.

Friends, Families and Travellers were involved in the consultation process and you can read our response to the Government’s proposals here.

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